The 2013 season for the Northern Illinois Huskies was one of the best - if the not the best ever - in school history. The Huskies won their first 12 games (something they had never done), beat two B1G teams (something no MAC school has done), finished third in the Heisman (another MAC record), and continued two of the longest streaks in college football - most consecutive home wins (26) and road wins (15).
Yes, the season ended on a sour note, getting hammered by Bowling Green in the MAC Championship game and then losing a close battle with Utah State in the Poinsettia Bowl. And if just losing the games wasn't bad enough, the Huskies now lose their entire defensive front, their shutdown safety, and the best dual-threat quarterback to play the game.
Jordan Lynch is gone. Jimmie Ward is gone. They were more than just great players with great stats. Also leaving with them is the veteran leadership, on both sides of the ball, that righted the ship when trailing and propelled the team in close games.
So the real question for 2014 is - who steps up?
The last two years the offense was not just centered around Lynch, it WAS Lynch. He accounted for more than 66% of all the yards gained last year and broke just about every rushing record for a QB. That's a heck of a gap to fill. Last season, when Lynch didn't run the ball, Cameron Stingily did - and was just as effective. But an injury has Stingily sidelined for the first four games as well.
So who steps up at running back? Well, Akeem Daniels is back. After missing 2013 with a foot injury, the senior RB is finally healthy enough to play again, witch is good news for Huskie fans. Daniels netted 447 rushing and 259 receiving yards with 11 total TDs in 2012. NIU will need him to be the go-to back for the first third of the season, until Stingily gets back. And once Stingily is healthy, the Huskies should have the best running attack in the MAC, with Daniels as a speedster and Stingily for the power.
The only unknown in the offense is at quarterback. So who gets the reigns? As of right now, we (and Rod Carey) still don't know which of the three candidates will take the helm - Matt McIntosh, Drew Hare, or Anthony Maddie. McIntosh and Hare have played, albeit very little, whereas Maddie, a Western Michigan transfer, was unable to last season due to NCAA transfer rules. All three also have dual threat capabilities but little experience running the offense. McIntosh is probably the best runner, Hare the best passer, and Maddie is right in the middle. It's no wonder head coach, Rod Carey, is having a hard time choosing. However, there is a silver lining for whoever the quarterback is. The rest of NIU's offense is loaded.
The new QB will inherit a stellar offensive line that includes Tyler Loos, Aidan Conlon, and Andrew Ness. Loos, a senior, received All-MAC honors last season and has been the most consistent player on the line, but has also battled injury problems. Conlon, who has started every game at right guard for the past two seasons, will move to the left side to help Loos. Tyler Pitt and Ryan Brown are the starters on the right side - each with plenty of playing time the last two years as well.
Along with the line, the receiving corp is also loaded. The Huskies bring back their top four receivers from last season, including Tommylee Lewis and Da'Ron Brown - both of whom are in the top 30 of our top-50 countdown. Last season they combined for 47% of all receiving yards (1467 yards), 51% of all receptions (132), 12 touchdowns and then added 401 rushing yards. Also back is Juwan Brescacin, who last season gained 500 yards and 6 scores. Behind those three, Aregeros Turner and Chad Beebe are in a position to have breakout seasons this year.
With everyone talking about the loss of Lynch, the defense has quietly gone unmentioned. But that's where the most concern should be. It wasn't just Jimmie Ward that left. Sure, he was a big part of the way the defense played last year, but NIU lost much more than just him.
Ken Bishop, Joe Windsor, Anthony Wells, and George Rainey - the entire front four - are also gone. That leaves Perez Ford and Jason Meehan to anchor the line. And while Meehan and Ford can do well, there is just no one with size on the line. Donovan Gordon and Michael Ippolito are the only two players who could start that weigh in over 275 pounds. So the Huskies will have to rely on speed, rather than power, to get into the backfield.
The secondary is also a big concern with Deschane Durante having to replace Ward's production. Marlon Moore will move from cornerback to safety this season, which will be a whole new challenge for him. Moore has played well the last two seasons, but it will be interesting to see how he handles the position change. Paris Logan and Anthony Brooks will be the starting corners. Logan has played the past two seasons, racking up 51 tackles, seven pass break ups, a forced fumble, and an interception. Brooks, on the other hand, has not played much, seeing action in just four games and recording only one tackle.
The linebackers are the only area on defense with some consistency. With senior Jamaal Bass and junior Boomer Mays leading the way, Jamaal Payton should have a lot of help. Bass and Mays were NIU's second and third leading tacklers last year, with 87 and 82 respectively. Payton, as a true freshman last year, had 42 tackles, a sack, forced a fumble, and three tackles for a loss.
Kicker Matthew Sims is also gone for the Huskies but somehow I don't think Rod Carey is too upset by his absence.
Instead, this year all kicking and puting duties will be handled by Tyler Wedel. Wedel has yet to attempt a field goal in a game, but has been a pretty good punter (averaging 40 yards per punt) and strong on kick offs.
Tommylee Lewis will also return as a kick returner, where he's very dangerous. He has returned four kicks for touchdowns (an NIU record), including two in the same game against Toledo a few years back.
|Aug. 28||vs Presbyterian||6 p.m./ESPN3|
|Sep. 6||at Northwestern||2:30 p.m./BTN|
|Sep. 13||at UNLV||6 p.m./TBA|
|Sep. 20||at Arkansas||TBA|
|Oct. 4||vs Kent State||TBA|
|Oct. 11||vs CMU||TBA|
|Oct. 18||vs Miami||TBA|
|Oct. 25||at EMU||TBA|
|Nov. 5||at Ball State||7 p.m./ESPN2|
|Nov. 11||vs Toledo||7 p.m./ESPN2|
|Nov. 18||at Ohio||7 p.m./ESPNU|
|Nov. 28||at WMU||TBA|
The Huskies will still have an electric offense, no matter who the quarterback is. They have two great runners in Daniels and Stingily, a trio of solid receivers, and the best offensive line in the MAC. That makes any QB's job much easier. The defense will have challenges early on when they play at Northwestern and Arkansas, but that should only help them once the Huskies reach conference play.
Presbyterian should be a nice warmup game to see how the new quarterback fits the offense. UNLV will test the new Huskie cornerbacks as the Rebels have an all-star receiver in Devante Davis. Both Northwestern and Arkansas use a more ground heavy attack, which will challenge the new D-line. All of the non-conference games are winnable, but winning three consecutive away games, two against power-five teams, is a tough task to say the least.
Once conference play starts, until proven otherwise, the Huskies are still the top dog in the MAC West, but Toledo and Ball State are definitely chomping at NIU's heels. Luckily, the Huskies get Toledo at home which makes Ball State the game that could determine who wins the West. Again, it will depend on the defense.
The season could go two ways: the Huskies can just keep rolling, despite a new QB and defense OR we could see just how valuable Lynch and Ward were.
Best case scenario: 11-1, MAC West Champs
Worst case scenario: 7-5, losing to Toledo, Ball State, and Ohio in the MAC